Urban cowboys 

The Magpies keep it a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll

Being in a band isn't easy. First of all, you've got to coordinate practice and book gigs. Then there's the inevitable slew of obstacles that threaten to topple even the tightest of groups: Drug addictions. Girlfriends. Boyfriends. Kids. Serial hangovers. Petty in-fighting. If you can survive those factors there's always room for other unknowns to pop up right before a show, including van breakdowns and food poisoning. Not so likely to make the list of show-stoppers? Impromptu wheat harvesting in Havre, Mont.

That is, unless you're in a band called The Magpies.

The local no-wave band is fronted by both guitarist Tolan Harber and bassist Samantha Pollington, a married couple who deliver an old-school sound with the same kind of lo-fi, quirky chemistry that made Exene Cervenka and John Doe so magnetic in the early punk band X. Or, they could just as easily be mistaken for contemporaries of Sonic Youth during its infant years on New York City's post-punk scene. Polling-ton and Harber, however, lead a fairly different lifestyle than any West Coast or East Coast rock legends. Despite a very distinct urban sound, with songs like "Rotten to the Whore" and "Gasoline Semen," the couple has country roots—Harber's mom lives in Havre and Pollington grew up there.

click to enlarge The Magpies includes Samantha Pollington, left, and Tolan Harber. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"What we play is like Sonic Youth country punk," says Harber. "Some of what we do is city, but my relatives were bohunk cowboys. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, but I know hardcore country people."

To add to their country cred, the couple spent all last month harvesting wheat in Havre for Pollington's family—Harber drives the truck and Pollington works the combine—until, partway through the harvest, rainy weather put everything on hold.

"It's something we do every August," says Harber. "We still have 200 acres to cut but we're rained out. We're waiting on the call to come back."

This week, the group plans to play its second show since moving to Missoula from Havre about a year ago. They're hoping that the call to harvest doesn't fall too close to the scheduled performance.

"We're farmers, too," says Harber, laughing. "But we have to be back for the show."

The couple hasn't always lived the country life. When Harber and Pollington first met in 2001, they had every intention of being a big city band, and they packed up their car and started driving to Los Angeles. On the way, they visited friends in San Francisco and ended up staying.

"Something happened to the wheel on our car," says Pollington. "It wouldn't move anymore, so we decided to stay, ending up there for almost two years."

The couple began writing songs and eventually moved to L.A., only to find themselves ready to come back to Montana a year and a half later. SoCal just wasn't their style, Pollington says. She describes the area as having one of the most "cheesy, commercial music scenes" she had ever seen. Harber sums it up with an anecdote about what happened when the couple posted an ad and started interviewing local drummers for The Magpies.

"When you're interviewing a drummer and they ask how they should get their hair cut, that's not good," says Harber.

The Magpies' current drummer, John Walls, is far from being concerned with his hair. In fact, he may even be more country than his bandmates, having grown up in a small town just north of Shelby. Besides The Magpies, he plays for local metal band Black Jesus Vomit, with whom he moved to Missoula a few years ago and with whom he plans to move to Great Falls within the next month so the band can all be closer to home. That move means this week's show with The Magpies will be his last.

"When I first moved to Missoula, the plan was we were going to try and give it a go here," Walls says. "But we're all from pretty small towns on the Hi-Line and Missoula caught us off guard. It pretty much kicked our ass the whole time."

Pollington and Harber have recruited a new drummer who's no stranger to them or to most of the local music scene: Havre native Dave Martens is best known in Missoula as the guitarist for Streetlight People and the drummer for Rooster Sauce, but he started with Pollington and Harber's first iteration of The Magpies.

Before Martens rejoins the band, Pollington and Harber are finishing up yet another one of their pet hobbies. Over the past few years, the couple has made several feature length films, including Diablo Highway, a B horror flick about their band, and Stranger Than Fiction, a hometown drama that takes place in Havre. Their current project is a western, which they're filming about 70 miles south of Havre in a little town called Cleveland. The film stars local theater veterans like Grant Olson, Lily Gladstone and Matt Werner.

"It's about these homesteaders going to find their land," says Harber. "We have covered wagons and horses and guns, renegade Indians. We have it all."

After the film wraps up the couple says they plan to record a new album—they put out their second album, pica pica,last year—and perhaps hit the road for a tour or two. Last year, they toured through L.A. and got to revisit their old haunts. But the show itself at the famous nightclub Whisky a Go Go was a bust. The bartender charged Pollington $4 for a glass of tap water, and Harber says the whole vibe of the place was too commercial.

"It was like playing Disneyland," he says.

For now, Pollington and Harber admit they're happy to visit places like L.A., but Missoula is exactly where they need to be. Unless, of course, there's some wheat that needs cutting.

The Magpies plays the Palace Friday, Sept. 10, at 9 PM, with The New Hijackers and The Lonely H. $5.

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